Panic attacks – what is it, what to do

Embracing negative emotions is a lot easier said than done but these emotions are there to protect us – most of the time. Feeling fearful stops us from stepping out in front of a car or touching a hot stove – a chemical response that’s triggered in the brain when we might put ourselves in danger. Or at times we need a dose of adrenalin to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Panic attacks are extreme levels of anxiety that occur when there’s no apparent danger. The physical and emotional symptoms can be extremely frightening – a sense of foreboding or dread, dizziness, tunnel vision, rapid heart beat, trembling, sweating etc. It’s extremely debilitating and just the thought of having another one can create panic in itself.

The first thing to know is that lots of people suffer with anxiety and panic attacks – even people who seem totally in control. They do pass (usually lasting between 5 to 20 minutes), they’re not life threatening and there’s lots you can do to try and avoid having one. So don’t be embarrassed about them – you’ll be surprised how many other people have experienced these or similar issues with anxiety once you open up about it.

To try and avoid a panic attack:

Look after yourself. Have a good self-care routine in place so that you have plenty of time in your life for relaxation and calm:

– Try to get enough sleep. Sleep can give you the energy to cope with difficult feelings and experiences. For 5 sleep tips see blog post here: We want better sleep but struggle to get it – 5 tips to help

– Have a good balanced diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable can make a difference to your mood and energy levels

– Try to do some physical activity each week. Exercise is really important for your mental wellbeing. Make sure you have time in your diary to do something you enjoy and if this can be outside even better. Pilates or Yoga that teach breathing and gentle movement can be particularly helpful to create calm if life can be overwhelming at times.

If you find yourself having a panic attack:

1. Breathe. By breathing deeply you send a signal to your brain that you’re calm and relaxed (even if you don’t feel it!). Breathing deeply triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, moving you out of ‘fight or flight mode’ and into the ‘rest and digest’ system. Breathing deeply slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and calms the system. Try Box Breathing: picture a square in your mind and trace the sides of the square as you inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4. Practice this technique when you aren’t feeling panicky so that you have it in your back pocket for when you need it.

2. Ground yourself with ‘5‘: Occupy your mind and concentrate on your immediate surroundings – become really mindful rather than focussed on the panic you’re feeling. Concentrate on: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, one deep breath.

3. Eat an extra strong mint: a bit like the above, focussing on doing something and over-riding your senses can help distract you for long enough to calm your system down. Chew gently and continue to breathe steadily

4. Know it’s ok and it will pass: the symptoms will pass, no one has ever died from a panic attack. Don’t try and fight it, just use these techniques and ride it out.

5. Talk to someone you trust. Don’t be embarrassed, don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. They happen to people of all ages and abilities. It’s not a weakness. There are lots of therapies out there that can help so talk to someone that can help you find the right therapy for you.

More information can be found here: NHS: Panic Disorder Article

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